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May 23, 2003


Progressives Can Learn from Scotland and Wales

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie

Progressives, people of color, and women advocates, stuck in the doldrums of Bush's America, should look toward Scotland and Wales for relief. Grounded in new "full representation" voting systems that provide multi-party democracy, elections there this May showed the value of voting system reform.

In contrast to the United States, where the number of women in Congress is stuck at 14 percent and declining in state legislatures, the Welsh assembly became the first parliament in the world in which women make up 50 percent of members.

Commenting on women's significant success, Welsh politician Rhodri Morgan said, "What is so remarkable is that up until the last decade of the 20th century we had an appalling record. Until 1997, Wales only ever had four women Members of Parliament. Our industrial heritage meant business was conducted in smoke-filled rooms of men."

But 1997 was when Wales introduced a full representation voting system -- and the change for women's representation was immediate. The Welsh results show how, under full representation, even a traditional society can change.

Meanwhile in Scotland, under the U.S.-style winner-take-all elections that used to elect their parliament, government always was a one-party stronghold of Tony Blair's allies in the Scottish Labour Party. But the recent introduction of full representation (also known as proportional representation) broke up the political machine and provided representation of the full diversity of Scottish opinion. In their May elections, the anti-war Scottish Nationalist and Liberal Democratic parties won more than a third of seats, while the Green Party and Scottish Socialists won more than 10 percent of seats.

Scotland demonstrates the value of electoral justice in which parties win their fair share. The Scots use a "mixed" system -- some seats elected by winner-take-all, one-seat districts like in the United States, others by full representation. Of the 73 seats decided in one-seat contests, the Labour Party won a landslide of 46 seats (63 percent) even though they received less than 35 percent of the popular vote. The Greens and Socialists won no seats. But the "full representation" seats balanced things out, resulting in Labour winning its fair and proportional share of 50 of 129 total seats.

Labour has been forced to negotiate and forge a coalition pact with the Liberal Democrats, and to reach out to the Green Party as well, giving progressives unprecedented influence. The Liberal Democrats have demanded more investment in health care and the introduction of full representation voting systems for local elections. Green issues on the table are the ending of GM crop trials, public transport, and cutting pollution through home energy-efficiency.

Many factors produced these results, including the hard work of advocates for women's representation and insurgent parties. But overwhelmingly the largest factor has been the introduction of full representation into the Scottish and Welsh parliaments.

"Full representation" describes voting systems in which groupings of voters elect seats in fair proportion to their share of the popular vote, rather than being shut out of representation if less than a majority. Ten percent and thirty percent of the vote win correspondingly ten percent and thirty percent of the seats, instead of nothing; 51 percent wins a bare majority instead of everything. Full representation produces more representative legislatures, which in turn produces truly representative policy, as well as the potential to define and change the direction of that policy.

Full representation has given Scottish and Welsh voters unprecedented freedom to express their political preferences. In addition to the stark contrast in Scotland between the winner-take-all seats and overall results, without full representation the Labour Party in Wales would have won fully three-quarters of the seats with just two-fifths of the vote. In both regions, then, with winner-take-all it would have been ho-hum, one-party government by a Labour Party that keeps tacking to the right.

In the United Kingdom, full representation also has been adopted for elections to the European Parliament, the London city council, and the new regional assembly in Northern Ireland. A blue ribbon commission has recommended full representation for the UK's national parliament. With our British political forebears testing the waters of "fair representation for all," it is time for this latest wave to wash across the Atlantic.

Full representation already has taken root in U.S. soil. In 2000, for example, Amarillo, Texas became the largest city to use a full representation system called cumulative voting. The results have been uplifting. After being all-white for two decades, the seven-member school board now has two Latinas and one African American. Women have won more seats, and turnout has surged.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the evidence is compelling. Progressives and advocates for representation for women, people of color, and minor parties would do well to work to replace 18th-century winner-take-all elections with full representation.

Steven Hill is a senior analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy  and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics (Routledge Press). Rob Richie is executive director of the Center.